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The lesson Sammy Davis gave us in black & white

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POSTED April 1, 2010 2:11 a.m.
Editor’s note: This is a shorter version of a column that first appeared in 1993.

The truth – and what makes a man – is often found in the most horrific situations.

Sammy Davis understands that. And so do countless other men and women who have served under this country’s flag defending the fragile concepts encompassed in two words that most Americans take for granted – “liberty” and “freedom”.

True honor is born in acts of courage. Davis made that clear on March 19, 1993 during Moving Wall ceremonies at Manteca High.

As 5,000 teary-eyed people watched, Davis dressed in his Army best embraced Gwyndell Holloway who was wearing his old Army fatigues. Applause drowned out what words the two were exchanging. The two hadn’t seen each other for 26 years.

Then - regaining his composure - Davis turned toward the bleachers where Manteca High students sat.

“What you have to understand,” Davis started in a clear even voice, “Is all this bull---- about prejudice and racism is just what I said - bull----.”

As tears of joy streamed down the two men’s faces, the applause took on a thunderous surge. Teens were wiping tears from their eyes. Marines in their best dress blues were blinking uncontrollably. A World War II veteran who had seen the worst that Hitler’s armies had to offer was smiling broadly with a tear streaming down his left cheek. Adults and children alike were unashamedly teary-eyed as the two men embraced.

“We became brothers in Vietnam,” Davis added, as strong applause continued to provide the music for the emotion-choked moment.

It didn’t matter that one was white and the other black. All that mattered was the fact they were both human beings caught in the most trying of circumstances.

Twenty-six years earlier when the severely wounded Holloway hollered out for help from across a deep Vietnam river as 1,500 enemy troops were advancing on 90 Americans, Davis didn’t worry about the color of Holloway’s skin. Nor did he worry about the fact he couldn’t swim or that heavy incoming fire threatened to end his life at any second.

Davis helped fire rounds back at the enemy located some 25 meters away when mortars hit American artillery positions and gravely injured his comrades. Between valiant efforts to keep the enemy from advancing, Davis grabbed an air mattress and struck out across the river to rescue his wounded comrades one by one. Each time he reached the far shore; Davis stood up and opened fire on the enemy to prevent them from advancing and finishing off the three soldiers.

His heroics continued after he pulled the last man back across the river.

Davis and Holloway learned a basic lesson that day that we all tend to forget - our differences aren’t what count. What matters are the things that unite us. They both probably knew that deep down before being sent to Vietnam as 19-year-olds. But it took the horror of war to drive the point home.

Days later in a military hospital, Holloway had the chance to return the favor. Davis’ body temperature was at 106 degrees. His blood was curdling. The Army hospital was low on blood. The doctors were about to give up on Davis and were going to wheel him into a corridor for what they thought was an inevitable fate.

But Holloway would hear nothing of it. He demanded that the doctors give Davis a direct transfusion from his veins. As the fever threatened to tighten its grip on Davis, the precious gift of life flowed from Holloway to the former Manteca resident.

They never saw each other again until 26 years later when another incredible man - retired Manteca High teacher and fellow veteran Harry Nagy - brought them together for that inspiring spring afternoon on the same field where Davis once played football for the Buffaloes.

Davis has dedicated his life to one clear and poignant message - the freedoms we cherish, yet take for granted, in this land exist only because of the men and women who have been willing to spill their blood for them over the past 240 years.

Freedom isn’t something you get for free, nor is it automatic, and it certainly isn’t a forever thing unless someone is willing to stand up against the forces that threatened to take it away from not just us but all of America’s brothers and sisters around the globe.

The forces of evil may ebb but they never vanish.

All it takes is for good men to stand idly by for evil to extinguish the flickering flames of liberty and freedom.

Those two concepts are an aberration in the history of civilization.

Evil, left unchecked, will snuff out those flames.

When the final tally is taken, all that really matters is that we’re in this together.

And that’s the truth - in black and white.
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